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Best budget laptops 2021: top cheap laptops for students heading back to university

Moving to university or heading back to school? Here's our pick of the best affordable laptops.

Best budget laptop

Want a new laptop and don’t want to spend a fortune? No problem. In this round-up, we’ll show you some of the best options, from £200 to around £500.

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If you can’t afford £200, you may be better off buying a second-hand or refurbished laptop, although some decent Chromebooks are available from £160.

Before we get to the picks, let’s deal with a few things you should avoid. This matters because even if you restrict your options to those we suggest below, each usually comes in a whole slew of variants. We’ve pinpointed a specific one a few times, but not in all cases as we don’t know your exact budget.

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How to choose the best budget laptop

Tip number one: don’t buy a laptop with a hard drive

Years ago, all laptops had hard drives, which store data on spinning platters. However, any laptop that runs off a hard drive feels annoyingly slow these days.

A laptop with an SSD drive is ideal, but even cheaper “eMMC” storage is better than a hard drive. The massive amount of storage hard drives offer may seem irresistible if the budget is tight, but we’d strongly recommend buying a laptop with smaller but faster storage. You can always pick up an external hard drive for cheap file archiving further down the line.

Tip number two: avoid TN screens if you can

Look at the specs page of a laptop for a mention of this. It may also be called SVA, which some manufacturers use to signify standard viewing angle.

Instead, we want a screen described as IPS or WVA (wide viewing angle). This basically tells us it doesn’t have a TN (twisted nematic) screen. Why the TN hate? These displays look pretty bad unless you view them dead on, and even then just don’t look as good as IPS/WVA displays because they tend to have very low contrast. TN screens in budget laptops do, anyway.

These are your two red alert messages. Avoid hard drives and TN screens, although the latter may be unavoidable if you’re looking to spend as little as possible.

The rest depends on your budget. If you want great performance, look for a laptop with an 11th generation Intel Core series processor or a 5th generation AMD Ryzen. All of these are excellent.

You don’t tend to find them in ultra-cheap laptops, leaving you with Intel Celeron and Pentium processors. These will do the job just fine for simple work, like writing documents, web browsing and video streaming. But if you want to use Photoshop, edit videos or play games, it’s worth saving a bit more for a powerful laptop.

Most of the laptops here use Windows. We’ve also included a Chromebook, a great option if you want to spend £200-300. Basic navigation in Chromebooks tends to feel faster than in Windows 10 when dealing with a low-end CPU, and while they can’t run Windows apps, you can download Android apps for them.

Getting ready for the new term? Don’t miss our guide to the best budget printers.

Best budget laptops to buy at a glance

  • Great all-round affordable touchscreen laptop: HP Pavilion 14, £549
  • Best shoestring Windows 10 buy: Asus E410, £200
  • Best budget convertible laptop: Microsoft Surface Go 2, £399 (without keyboard)
  • Best budget performance buy: Lenovo IdeaPad 5i 14, £450
  • Best low-cost ultraportable: Acer Swift 1, £399
  • A top cheap 15.6-inch screen option: Dell Inspiron 15 3000, £500
  • Best for high-end performance: Dell Inspiron 14, £550
  • Best Chromebook deal: Asus Chromebook C523, £230

Best cheap laptops to buy in 2021

HP Pavilion 14, £549

Great all-round affordable touchscreen laptop

HP Pavilion 14

Pros

  • Decent screen
  • Nice design
  • Touchscreen

Cons

  • Limited display colour saturation

If you’re looking for an affordable laptop that minimises what you miss out on, take a look at the HP Pavilion 14. It has a metal lid and keyboard surround. It doesn’t look too bad and is only a little heavier than the “slim and light” class average at 1.4kg.

The screen is a 14-inch Full HD IPS LCD, which is what we want. Brightness is solid, and while colour saturation is limited, we’re willing to take that hit at this price. It’s a touch display, too, relatively rare in this class.

HP puts extra effort into the speakers too, which is great if you’re a student who needs a laptop to double as a TV. It has performance chops as well, with 256GB storage, 8GB RAM and an Intel Core i3 at £549.

If you can afford the £50 bump up to the Intel Core i5 version and like video games, we’d recommend the jump. You get a significantly better graphics processor in the step-up model. Don’t care about gaming and would rather hold onto that £50? The Core i3 version is perfectly solid.

The HP Pavilion 14 is available to buy from:

Asus E410, £200

Best shoestring Windows 10 buy

Asus E410

Pros

  • Decent battery life
  • Very low cost for a Windows laptop
  • 180-degree hinge

Cons

  • Pixelated screen
  • Polarising “NUM” touchpad
  • Fairly dim screen

How little can you spend on a Windows laptop? We think the Asus E410 is a sensible price floor. You can get it online for £200 at the time of writing.

Asus calls this a “Cloudbook”, but don’t confuse that with a Chromebook. This is a Windows laptop, but it only has 64GB of storage. Asus is saying, “you’d better use cloud storage as there’s not much to go around here”.

It has a good-size 14-inch screen, but the 1366 x 768 resolution will look more pixelated than the Full HD kind we’ve recommended elsewhere in this article. The display is fairly dim, too, so it will look best indoors. We did manage to find the Full HD version for £240 online, a worthy upgrade if you can afford it.

The Asus E410’s Celeron processor is only going to get on well with basic jobs, but we’d happily use it for writing articles or essays and web browsing. However, that low-power CPU also means the battery tends to last a full day of work. You’re probably getting the idea by now. The Asus E410 is a fairly basic laptop. But it does have a quirk or two.

Its screen hinge folds back 180-degrees, letting you share what’s on-screen more easily. The touchpad also doubles as a NUM pad, although we don’t love the numerals printed into the pad itself. In a pricier Asus laptop, you sometimes get a light-up NUM pad on the touchpad, but there’s no budget for that sort of tech here.

The Asus E410 is available to buy from:

Microsoft Surface Go 2, £399 (without keyboard)

Best budget convertible laptop

Microsoft Surface Go 2

Pros

  • Great screen
  • Slick design
  • Can be used as a tablet

Cons

  • Low performance
  • Keyboard costs extra, and isn’t cheap

The Microsoft Surface Go 2 is the slickest budget laptop around. But is it even a laptop?

Search for this computer online, filter by lowest price and what you’ll see is just as much an iPad rival. It’s a sleek magnesium-body tablet, but one that runs Windows instead of iPad OS or Android.

However, buy it with the clip-on Surface Go 2 Type Cover, and you have a laptop more portable than just about anything else on this list.

It has an excellent, if a little small, 10.5-inch touchscreen that is sharper and more vibrant than just about any low-price traditional laptop. Want the downsides? Microsoft Surface Go 2’s Type Cover isn’t cheap at £100, bumping the cost to £500 rather than £400. And this is among the weakest laptops in this round-up. Only buy one if you just need the laptop basics.

Microsoft does make a more powerful version, but it costs so much more it doesn’t really qualify as a “budget” laptop option.

The Microsoft Surface Go 2 is available to buy from:

Lenovo IdeaPad 5i 14, £450

Best budget performance buy

Lenovo IdeaPad 5i 14

Pros

  • Good performance for the money
  • Relatively refined styling
  • Full HD IPS screen

Cons

  • Plastic casing

Lenovo makes a stack of laptops in its IdeaPad range. Today’s recommendation for the budget buyer is a specific one, which you can pick up for around £450.

Hunt down the Lenovo IdeaPad 5i 14 with a trusty 11th Gen Intel Core i3 processor, a 128GB SSD, 4GB RAM and a 300-nit 14-inch Full HD screen. We think this will offer the majority of people a great experience for little money, with enough power to go beyond the basics and even play some moderately taxing games.

We chose this laptop because it’s a classic no-nonsense, good value Windows machine. This is the kind of computer we often end up recommending to friends and relatives. Lenovo’s design style helps too. There’s something classy and slightly reserved about Lenovo’s budget laptops that we appreciate. The shape of the keys, the slim screen borders and the layout of the keyboard surround give off an impression that won’t make people assume you bought a cheaper laptop.

Lenovo makes several versions of this same model. Those called IdeaPad 5 rather than IdeaPad 5i have AMD processors instead of Intel ones. Buy the latest models, and you can’t go wrong with either, so shop around to find the best deals. The most important step-up upgrades are to 8GB RAM and 256GB storage, which we’d recommend if the budget will stretch that far. You get more room for apps and can run more of them without the thing starting to struggle with the workload.

The Lenovo IdeaPad 5i 14 is available to buy from:

Acer Swift 1, £399

Best low-cost ultraportable

Acer Swift 1

Pros

  • Decent screen
  • Slim and light
  • Attractive metal casing

Cons

  • Limited performance in entry-level version

Check out the Acer Swift 1 if you want a slim, light and relatively stylish laptop for portable use. It has a metal casing, which provides that MacBook-like vibe for much less money. And at 1.3kg, it’s the sort of laptop we’d be happy to carry around all day, every day.

The Acer Swift 1 also has a 14-inch Full HD screen. It’s a fairly large display and just as sharp as those of laptops that cost twice as much, although colours aren’t nearly as vibrant as the Surface Go 2’s.

If you want a laptop that feels a bit like MacBook but costs far less, the Swift 1 will do the trick. However, we don’t recommend the entry-level model with an Intel N6000 CPU if you need to do more than word processing, web browsing and movie streaming. While the SSD storage will make the basics feel slick enough, this brain isn’t made for serious number crunching.

Look into the step-up Acer Swift 3 if you need more power. While most versions aren’t quite “budget”, you can currently pick up a well-specced Ryzen version for £530 online. That’s a good buy.

The Acer Swift 1 is available to buy from:

Dell Inspiron 15 3000, £500

A top cheap 15.6-inch screen option

Dell Inspiron 15 3000

Pros

  • Lots of connection types
  • Big screen
  • Uses Intel Core CPUs

Cons

  • Somewhat drab plastic build/design

Dell’s Inspiron 15 3000 is a great choice if you need a larger laptop. It has a 15.6-inch screen, which gives apps more room than the other models here. You’ll appreciate that if you plan to work all day from the laptop’s own display, rather than plugging in a monitor.

Our recommended spec has 8GB RAM, a 256GB SSD and an Intel i5-1135G7 processor. It lands at around £500 at the time of publishing.

This is going to offer a satisfying experience in a whole bunch of ways. You get ultra-fast storage, with enough room to install a bunch of apps or games and store a lot of files. Its general performance is excellent, and the Intel Xe graphics hardware can handle challenging games like The Witcher 3, Fortnite and GTA V remarkably well.

Get this version, and you have the same amount of power as some laptops over £1000. The design is practical rather than flashy, decked out in grey plastic, and weight of 1.8kg may get a little heavy on the shoulders after carrying the Inspiron 15 3000 in a rucksack for a while. Screen brightness won’t dazzle either.

But if you plan to use a laptop as a desktop PC-replacer, it’s a good bet. It also has a full-size HDMI port, SD card reader and Ethernet port: practical features that mean you don’t have to worry about adapters for plug-in peripherals.

The Dell Inspiron 15 3000 is available to buy from:

Dell Inspiron 14, £550

Best for high-end performance

Dell Inspiron 14

Pros

  • Reasonably upmarket design
  • Very powerful in this class

Cons

  • Lacks high screen brightness of the step-up 7000 model

If you like the sound of the Dell Inspiron 15 3000’s power but find the design a bit heavy and stodgy, consider the Inspiron 14.

It has a smaller 14-inch screen, but this helps to bring the weight down to around 1.4kg. That’s much better for portable use, and the Inspiron 14’s footprint is smaller too.

You also get a design upgrade. It has a metal lid and keyboard surround for a touch of class that makes it seem less like an affordable laptop.

We may be testing the budget here. You’re looking at around £550 for the version with an Intel Core i5, 256GB SSD and 8GB RAM. But with that kind of power on tap, the Inspiron 14 is going to feel fresh for years. With the same budget, you can also pick up the AMD Ryzen 5500U CPU version. They are fairly evenly matched, each winning in different situations, but the Ryzen is technically more powerful and handles some games better.

There’s also a 2-in-1 version with a 360-degree hinge Inspiron 14, but this drops you down to 4GB RAM and an Intel Core i3 unless you’re willing to spend more.

The Dell Inspiron 14 is available to buy from:

  • Dell
  • Currys (DELL Inspiron 14 5406 14″ 2 in 1 Laptop)

Asus Chromebook C523, £230

Best Chromebook deal

Asus Chromebook C523

Pros

  • Low cost
  • Metal lid
  • 1080p screen

Cons

  • ChromeOS is more restrictive than Windows

Don’t rule out a Chromebook when shopping for a budget laptop. These are often the most sensible buys if the alternative is a very low-spec Windows computer. Why?

Laptops like the Asus Chromebook C523 have lower overheads because the core software is simpler. As a result, they feel faster with a low-power CPU.

The software they do run, ChromeOS, still lets you do plenty. You get Google services like Docs and Mail baked in, and they can run Android apps. There are versions of the Microsoft Office suite apps available for Chromebooks, for example.

Our favourite Chromebook deal at the time of writing is for the Asus Chromebook C523, available for as little as £229-279 online. Big disclaimer: make sure you buy the right version.

We recommend the ASUS Chromebook C523 with a Full HD screen and Intel Pentium N4200 processor. There’s also a model with a lower-resolution screen and a weaker chipset.

Stand-outs here include a 180-degree hinge and a neat aluminium lid for a fancier feel. It’s also a 15.6-inch laptop. If you want something smaller, look into the 14-inch Acer Chromebook 314. Again, there are variants with Full HD and less sharp displays, so make sure to check before buying.

The Asus Chromebook C523 is available to buy from:

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Looking for more affordable tech? Read our guides to the best budget smartphones, best budget tablets, best budget wireless earbuds and best budget smartwatches. And don’t forget that both Black Friday 2021 and Cyber Monday 2021 will see top tech selling for less.